Malta - A Visitor's Guide to the Maltese Archipelago

Malta: view from Valetta
••• Berit Watkin/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Visit Malta and you'll see remnants of 7000 years of history, some of which still lives today. Take the familiar eight-pointed Maltese Cross, for example. Worn by New York Firemen, the cross still symbolizes both the Beatitudes and the eight obligations of the Knights of St. John: live in truth; have faith; repent of sins; give proof of humility; love justice; be merciful; be sincere and whole-hearted; endure persecution.

Malta offers lots for the tourist in search of sun and sea. The ancient, isolated culture left lots for the history (and prehistory) buff to see. The Knights of Malta inspired some fantastic architecture. The people are friendly--and getting around the island group is easy without the burden of a rental car. Malta sees over a million tourists a year, more than the population of 418,366 (2012).

Little Malta (122 square miles) contains 9 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Where is Malta?

Malta is a group of Islands situated 60 miles south of Sicily and 288 km north of Tunisia. For centuries it has used this central but rather isolated position to become a nexus for trade. The populated islands are Malta, Comino and Gozo.

The official languages are Maltese and English.

Weather and Climate in Malta

Summers are typically Mediterranean: hot, dry and very sunny. Sea breezes sometimes cool you off, but in spring and fall, the Sirocco from Africa may turn the islands into an oven.

Locals head for the beaches. Winters are mild. 

International Living recently named Malta as a place to consider for retirement overseas:

In Europe, Malta comes in third position in the Climate category and enjoys a Mediterranean climate with hot summers and mild winters. Located 60 miles from the Italian island of Sicily, Malta’s location means the climate in winter is relatively warm. High summer can be hot—that’s when expats and locals head to the many beaches.

Currency

The Euro became the official currency of Malta on 1 January 2008, replacing the Maltese Lira.

A Very Short History of Malta

Malta's megalithic structures date from around 3800 bc. They are unique. Some of the oldest extant free-standing structures have been built here, the oldest being the megalithic Ġgantija temples on Gozo island.

The Phoenicians arrived in 800 BC and stayed for 600 years. The Romans gobbled them up and added them to the empire in 208 BC.

It is widely believed that the apostle Paul was shipwrecked on Malta in 60 AD (although this is disputed today by Biblical scholars). Arabs from North Africa arrived around 870, bringing citrus, cotton, and bits of language. Norman invaders from Sicily booted the Arabs 220 years later, holding sway for 400 years until the Emperor of Spain gave the islands to the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem in exchange for a rent of 2 Maltese falcons a year.

Over the course of the next 250 years or so the knights managed to save Europe from the Turks, but all the power and fame brought corruption and many turned to piracy. Napolean arrived in 1798 to take the islands from the worn-out knights, but the British turned around and booted the French.

Malta became a British colony in 1814, the British turning it into a major army base. Malta achieved complete autonomy in 1964, flirted with communism for a while, and now is a candidate to join the European Union.

Top Cities to Visit

Valletta - The capital city built by the Knights of St. John is a great place to walk around in--it was one of the first towns to use a grid pattern for streets. St. John's Cathedral commissioned in 1572 by Grand Master Jean de la Cassière represents some of the best work of Gerolamo Cassar and was one of the first buildings in the city.

Mdina and its suburb Rabat - The walled city of Mdina, home to Malta's noble families, has great atmosphere and restaurants.

Gozo - The island of Gozo, a smaller rural island to the north of Malta just a half-hour ferry ride away.

This is the laid-back side of Malta featuring rugged coastlines, sleepy villages and traditional crafts. Gozo’s must-see attractions include the Citadella, the prehistoric Ggantija Temples, ta’ Pinu Sanctuary and the Dwejra area.

For Kids (And Their Parents)

Remember Popeye the Sailor Man? The cartoon became a movie and the cute, ramshackle village Popeye lived in was constructed in 1979-1980 on the coast two miles away from the Mellieħa Village. It's quite the scenic wonder, even today.

Getting Around Malta

Buses are fabulous in both form and function. You can get almost anywhere on them. They supplanted the railway in 1905. Malta by Bus can tell you all about the system and its history. In summer, there are frequent ferries to the populated islands. You can also take the slow road, riding in a horse-drawn Karrozin . Car rental is possible. Driving is by British convention, of course--you drive on the left.

Getting to Malta

Malta is well-connected with the rest of Europe. Air Malta operates frequent flights to European destinations.